INTERVIEW: PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN VFX Art Director Aaron McBride on Creating the Film's Mermaids

In a recent virtual round-table, McBride -- who's served as Visual Effects Art Director on all four Pirates films -- discussed the process of developing the intense and visually stunning mermaid sequence, what challenges were presented in creating the beautiful sirens and then transforming them into deadly creatures of the sea.

In this summer's action-adventure follow-up Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Captain Jack Sparrow​ (Johnny Depp) crosses paths with a woman from his past (Penelope Cruz), and he’s not sure if it’s love–or if she’s a ruthless con artist who’s using him to find the fabled Fountain of Youth. When she forces him aboard the Queen Anne​’s Revenge, the ship of the formidable pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), Jack finds himself on an unexpected adventure in which he doesn’t know who to fear more: Blackbeard or the woman from his past.

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First things first, for those who may be unaware as to what a VFX Art Director's task may be McBride explained, “A Visual Effects Art Director generates artwork to serve as a 'look target' or visual guide for the CG artists, modelers and view painters. Sometimes early in pre-production we will generate design concept art for characters, vehicles or environments. Then once a design has been approved by the Director we will do supporting artwork for the CG artists, Technical Directors and Compositors of how a creature or vehicle will look in a shot or sequence of the final film once it is textured and lit.”

Having worked on the first three Pirates films, when McBride and team began work on the mermaids he said one of the challenges presented to them was trying to develop the mermaids to be “beautiful, seductive Sirens which we hadn't seen before in the previous Pirates films,” he continued, “They were not the rotting cursed skeletons or encrusted with the Marine Life like the creatures in the previous films had been....but they needed to look like they belonged in that same world.”

Director Rob Marshall was very instrumental with developing the overall looks and behavior of the mermaids. “He showed us a lot of reference of qualities he liked. So we did an initial rough design pass, casting the net wide and exploring a lot of different possibilities. We experimented with finding a good balance between the mermaids being very beautiful while also being these ferocious creatures that had very vicious predatory qualities as well.”

He added, “We did a lot of concept art early on where the Mermaids were much more monstrous and creature looking. Trying to strike that balance between sea creature and the beautiful seductive siren. We played with adding more elements to them that would make them look more like predatory fish. Early concepts had serrated, razor-like piranha teeth....some had shark teeth and distended jaws like a shark. We explored giving them serrated dorsal ridges and very silvery skin like a swordfish. And those lifeless black eyes like a great white.”

McBride also explained when it came to the design of the sirens; they not only looked into the various “traditional representations of mermaids in classic paintings and literature” but also referenced Ballet dancers and their performance underwater, also adding, “[The Ballet dancers] would used these large pieces of translucent fabric in large sweeping gestural moves. It created this cool veiled look to the dancers so we tried to find a way to incorporate this in our mermaids. We tried giving the mermaids drapery that could hang from them like strands or tendrils of translucent fish fin or jelly fish membrane or sheets of kelp. So while we stayed faithful to the classic folklore imagery of mermaids, there were still some elements that we added to give them a more graceful and dramatic appearance when they moved through the water.”

Continuing to explain the process, the VFX Art Director went on to explain the process of adding the visual effects to the various actresses seen close-up in the sequence such as actress Gemma Ward. “...when we see the mermaids face closeup as she comes in for the kill, it was her on set but then we added some slight digital elements to her appearance...sharper teeth, and a slight sense of shimmery fish scale qualities to her skin.” he continues, “Rob really wanted to retain as much of the actresses true beauty appearances in their faces as possible. They needed to be these creatures that had evolved to be the perfect seductive predator. The idea was that they could appear very beautiful but that their actions should be very vicious like ferocious animals.”

With all four Pirates films being based on the open scene it was inevitable for the VFX team to deal with the designing a sequence within an underwater atmosphere, “When you compose or design something for an underwater sequence it's always fun because there's always more atmospherics underwater. You get a lot of depth fall-off when forms become dark silhouettes quickly and when they moved away from you. Also you get a lot of light shards and caustics. It's naturally a very haunting and dense environment to play with. Designing something like the mermaids was fun because you could play with various dramatic ways to compose them.”

The latest Pirates film was filmed in 3D using a “Red” camera system. McBride discussed that one of the challenges, from an FX point of view, in working on a 3D filmed movie, “There are a lot of technical reasons why stereoscopic films are more challenging to work on. Many of the VFX cheats that you can get away with on a second film don't work in 3D.” When asked what an example, he replied, “an animated character like the mermaids. A pose may look great from one camera view but off in another. All the details that we resolve for one eye perspective we then need to resolve for the other eye.”

With regards to the latest 3D trend and whether he thought it was “here to stay,” he explained that 3D was just another tool that filmmakers use and though it may not be appropriate for every film or it's storytelling process, “it can be fun when it enhances a scene.” McBride's experience on the four Pirates films have been rewarding for the VFX Art Director having said, “It's always a really great opportunity to play in that world and especially rewarding to see it on screen.” As of now, he is currently working on Marvel's anticipated super hero ensemble film, Avengers.